15 August 2008

Tropic Thunder

There may have been a layer of unexpectedness which enhanced my enjoyment of this film, but I must admit it was highly entertaining.  A little bit of Borat-type humor ("That is so wrong..."), Hot Shots goofiness, and well-planted dialogue combine to make a very silly movie.
Hollywood makes fun of itself, on every level, as the plot centers around big budget (and over-budget) action film shoot turned disaster. Rookie director, played by Steve Coogan, struggles to control a roster of varying personalities.  Ben Stiller is the pretty boy action star, Robert Downey, Jr. is the extreme method actor with more awards than fingers, and Jack Black is the king of fart jokes and fatty suits.  All three have an entirely skewed version of reality, which is counterbalanced by Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel, as the celebrity trying to prove his acting chops and the newbie looking for a breakthrough, respectively.  The five represent the gamut of 'types', perhaps even, the evolution of a celebrity and lead the way through film's quest for footage (literally) and maturity (figuratively).
Ben Stiller shares writing credit on this with Justin Theroux and Ethan Coen.  It quickly becomes clear which scenes were invented by whom, but the mixture works.  Stiller (think Zoolander as "stupid-funny") seems to rely on the abject absurdity of a situation and Coen infuses the repartee with smart dialogue befitting the characters.  
Much as been made of two aspects of the film which some find (or fear will be) offensive.  Downey, Jr.'s character undergoes plastic surgery so he can play an African-American character.  Much is made of this irony throughout the movie and in so doing the silliness of it comes blatant.  By taking it to the edge, it reminds the audience of how ridiculous Hollywood can be.  
A smaller stink was made of the "don't go full retard" speech.  Again, at first glance, it seems insensitive but after thinking on it for a moment it becomes clear that beneath the joke lies a truth that should embarrass the establishment.
Yet there are more subtle jabs at the likes of Mel Gibson when Downey, Jr. sheds his disguise and resumes his impossibly blue eyes and Australian accent.
Overall, Tropic Thunder is rife with "I can't believe they just said that" moments as well as a few highlights from Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise (with cringe-inducing chest hair), and Bill Hader.   It's a funny film that should be taken as satire, not as a literal version of what it mocks.

09 August 2008

Two Classic (and somewhat unknown) Gems

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. 
Decades before Mel Brooks' "The Producers", Ernst Lubitsch directed this backstage comedy about Nazi-occupied Poland.  Not your typical idea for a light-hearted comedy, especially in 1942 (production hadn't even quite finished when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor).  But Lubitsch (a German-born Jew who came to Hollywood in 1922) brings out the inanity of it all with subtle, sly humor.  
The film is not a spoof or screwball but a quiet undermining of the ridiculousness of Fascism. 
It revolves around a theatre troupe rehearsing a play in which they mock Adolf Hitler (his entrance line is "Hail me!").  During dress rehearsal they learn the the Nazis have begun an invasion of Poland.  The government makes them halt the production of the play and they extend the run of their current offering, "Hamlet".  Lombard, a famous stage actress out of job once the theatre is bombed, takes on a little light espionage.  With Jack Benny, couple of fake mustaches and some gullible Nazis, she leads the mission to prevent information from getting into the wrong hands.  
Both stars are incredibly charming, using their talents in the art of understatement.  The last film Lombard made before dying in a plane crash, it is easy to see how she won the heart of William Powell, Clark Gable and American film goers.  

ANOTHER LANGUAGE (1933) with Helen Hayes and Robert Montgomery
TCM featured Robert Montgomery a couple of months ago and I Tivo'd several for their offerings.  I already knew I enjoyed him, having seen him in "Night Must Fall", but I did not realize the breadth of his work.  In addition to acting as the President of the Screen Actors Guild and joining the Navy to rise to the rank of Commander, he also became a successful director (and the first to use 1st person camera angles for the length of a film - Lady in the Lake 1947).  
One of the titles TCM chose to show did not display his usual whimsical self.  Another Language follows the first three years of newlyweds played by Montgomery and Lombard.  Giggly, romantic and newly-eloped the Mr. and Mrs. Victor and Stella Hallam return to everyday life the moment they disembark the ship and  Stella quickly learns about Victor's overbearing mother and snarky family. 
Over time she notices that Victor no longer stands up for her.  The give and take is gone.  rather than go quietly into oblivion, she fights for the relationship they used to have.  She refuses to let Mother Hallam guilt her, or take to heart the slicing comments of her sisters-in-law.  She even refuses the sincere advances of her new nephew - an easy escape from staid Victorian family to those butterflies-in-the-stomach courting days.  
The film was released just 6 months before the Hays Code began to be enforced.  Baby Face (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck is often credited with being the film that pushed censors over the edge but Another Language is just as pointed.  The loose lifestyle in Baby Face was shocking and lurid but this film is much more grounded in reality.  It bears great weight and the ups and downs of this marriage are expertly performed.  Montgomery manages to slough off his usual happy-go-lucky attitude and portray a basically good man who has allowed himself to be controlled by others.  His habits and attitudes are so ingrained that when his wife lands outside the boundaries he is lost.  Even his eyes look empty in this film.  Lombard plays a strong, but loving woman.  She has no hysteria and she is not of loose morals.  She loves her husband very much and makes a play to rescue the man she married from being lost in outdated, suffocating habits.    Certainly, an assertive woman who stood up to her husband's family, would have raised a few eyebrows at the MPPDA.  

04 August 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe


As a gawky teenager, with few friends and awful braces, there was little hope for me to find anything to even talk about in 8th grade.  Then the adventures of Mulder and Scully appeared on Friday nights -- when I was home.  Alone.  In the middle of nowhere.  I lived a half-an-hour away from town and I couldn't drive yet anyway.  So I settled in for an evening of Due South and X-Files. (By the way, Due South was written and produced by Paul Haggis, who went on to write/adapt such films as Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, and Casino Royale.  I had the nose even then...) 
My overactive imagination and photographic memory finally afforded me a chance to speak to the cool kids who also watched this show.  It wasn't much, but it was something.  I don't pretend that television is all-important, but it can give you a helping-hand from time to time.
I watched, and re-watched, regularly until Mulder left.  I tried to continue but it wasn't the same without him.  I can't say I blame Duchovny, really.  See, there are two kinds of episodes: the monster/ghoulie/phenomena of the week and the government conspiracy updates.  Early seasons kept the gov't stuff to a minimum, inserting it for occasional mysterious overtone.  It mainly focused on these to unlikely heroes checking into weird stuff.  As time went on, that balance was destabilized and it all became about secret organizations, double-crosses, and  government cover-ups  (as if this government could ever be so streamlined and efficient).  
So I was glad to see a trailer that looked as though the team had taken a more episodic approach - some mystery that warranted a bit more than TV's 42 minutes to uncover.
X-Files: I Want to Believe is along those lines.  It follows the case of a missing agent, whose last few moments were seen by a psychic with an unsavory past.  Mulder, who is essentially a recluse, and Scully, now a prominent surgeon, are called in by the special-agent-in-charge (Amanda Peet) to assist, due to their experience dealing with psychics.  Another woman goes missing, under similar circumstances and the two find themselves investigating alongside the FBI -- and still battling their own demons  (Always in the snow...).
Although somewhat limp, there was an attempt to weave themes across the simultaneous story lines.  Scully is trying reconcile her beliefs along with her desire to push science to the limits.  And how does her willingness to use radical, experimental treatments while the villains they are after do a cruder version of the same?  Does Mulder's determination to "believe" become a detriment to finding the truth?  Can a man with a sketchy past still be a harbinger of truth?  
Unfortunately this promising episodic style film leaves itself behind in the last few minutes with the "reveal."  Their attempt to create an "I didn't see that one coming" moment backfires  -- all the way back to dreadful 1950s drive-in movies now featured on MST3K.  They should have gone back to the modest budget, high-creativity, somewhat gritty early X-Files for inspiration.  Maybe they did, and they are too far beyond where they started to go back.